Barbershop music

Barbershop music

Barbershop vocal harmony, as codified during the barbershop revival era (1940s-present), is a style of a cappella, or unaccompanied vocal music characterized by consonant four-part chords for every melody note in a predominantly homophonic texture. Each of the four parts has its own role: generally, the lead sings the melody, the tenor harmonizes above the melody, the bass sings the lowest harmonizing notes, and the baritone completes the chord, usually below the lead. The melody is not usually sung by the tenor or bass, except for an infrequent note or two to avoid awkward voice leading, in tags or codas, or when some appropriate embellishment can be created. Occasional brief passages may be sung by fewer than four voice parts.

According to the Barbershop Harmony Society:

quotation|Barbershop music features songs with understandable lyrics and easily singable melodies, whose tones clearly define a tonal center and imply major and minor chords and barbershop (dominant and secondary dominant) seventh chords that resolve primarily around the circle of fifths, while making frequent use of other resolutions. Barbershop music also features a balanced and symmetrical form, and a standard meter. The basic song and its harmonization are embellished by the arranger to provide appropriate support of the song's theme and to close the song effectively.
Barbershop singers adjust pitches to achieve perfectly tuned chords in just intonation while remaining true to the established tonal center. Artistic singing in the barbershop style exhibits a fullness or expansion of sound, precise intonation, a high degree of vocal skill, and a high level of unity and consistency within the ensemble. Ideally, these elements are natural, unmanufactured, and free from apparent effort.
The presentation of barbershop music uses appropriate musical and visual methods to convey the theme of the song and provide the audience with an emotionally satisfying and entertaining experience. The musical and visual delivery is from the heart, believable, and sensitive to the song and its arrangement throughout. The most stylistic presentation artistically melds together the musical and visual aspects to create and sustain the illusions suggested by the music.| [cite web|url=|title=Definition of the Barbershop Style, from the Contest and Judging Handbook|date=2002-07-11|accessdate=2007-06-06|publisher=Barbershop Harmony Society]

Slower barbershop songs, especially ballads, often eschew a continuous beat, and notes are often held (or speeded up) ad libitum.

The voice parts in men's barbershop singing do not correspond closely to the correspondingly named voice parts in classical music. Barbershop singing is performed both by men's and women's groups; the elements of the barbershop style and the names of the voice parts are the same for both.

Ringing chords

The defining characteristic of the barbershop style is the "ringing" chord. This is a name for one specific and well-defined acoustical effect, also referred to as "expanded sound," "the angel's voice," "the fifth voice," or "the overtone." (The barbershopper's "overtone" is not the same as the acoustic physicist's overtone which is known as heterodyning).

The physics and psychophysics of the effect are fairly well understood; it occurs when the upper harmonics in the individual voice notes, and the sum and difference frequencies resulting from nonlinear combinations within the ear, reinforce each other at a particular frequency, strengthening it so that it stands out separately above the blended sound. The effect is audible only on certain kinds of chords, and only when all voices are equally rich in harmonics and justly tuned and balanced. It is not heard in chords sounded on keyboard instruments, due to the slight tuning imperfection of the equal-tempered scale.

Gage Averill writes that "Barbershoppers have become partisans of this acoustic phenomenon" and that "the more experienced singers of the barbershop revival (at least after the 1940s) have self-consciously tuned their dominant seventh and tonic chords in just intonation to maximize the overlap of common overtones."cite book |title = Four Parts, No Waiting: A Social History of American Barbershop Harmony |first = Gage |last = Averill |publisher = Oxford University Press |year = 2003 |isbn=0195116720 ]

What is prized is not so much the "overtone" itself, but a unique sound whose achievement is most easily recognized by the presence of the "overtone". The precise synchrony of the waveforms of the four voices "simultaneously" creates the perception of a "fifth voice" while at the same time melding the four voices into a unified sound. The ringing chord is qualitatively different in sound from an ordinary musical chord e.g. as sounded on a tempered-scale keyboard instrument.

Most elements of the "revivalist" style are related to the desire to produce these ringing chords. Performance is a cappella to prevent the distracting introduction of equal-tempered intonation, and because listening to anything but the other three voices interferes with a performer's ability to tune with the precision required. Barbershop arrangements stress chords and chord progressions that favor "ringing", at the expense of suspended and diminished chords and other harmonic vocabulary of the ragtime and jazz forms.

The dominant seventh-type chord... is so important to barbershop harmony that it is called the "barbershop seventh..." [SPEBSQSA (now BHS)] arrangers believe that a song should contain dominant seventh chords anywhere from 35 to 60 percent of the time (measured as a percentage of the duration of the song rather than a percentage of the chords present) to sound "barbershop."

Historically barbershoppers may have used the word "minor chord" in a way that is confusing to those with musical training. Averill suggests that it was "a shorthand for chord types other than major triads", and says that the use of the word for "dominant seventh-type chords and diminished chords" was common in the late nineteenth century. A 1910 song called "Play That Barber Shop Chord" [Citation |title=Play That Barber Shop Chord |last1=Muir |first1=Lewis (music) |last2=Tracy |first2=William (lyrics) |year=1910 |publisher=J. Fred Helf |publication-place=New York |url=,4874] (often cited as an early example of "barbershop" in reference to music) contains the lines:

'Cause Mister when you start that minor part
I feel your fingers slipping and a grasping at my heart,
Oh Lord play that Barber shop chord!

Averill notes the hints of rapture, "quasi-religion" and erotic passion in the language used by barbershoppers to describe the emotional effect. He quotes Jim Ewin as reporting "a tingling of the spine, the raising of the hairs on the back of the neck, the spontaneous arrival of 'goose flesh' on the forearm.... [the 'fifth note' has] almost 'mysterious propensities...' It's the 'consummation' devoutly wished by those of us who love Barbershop harmony. If you ask us to explain ... why we love it so, we are hard put to answer; 'that's where our faith takes over.'" Averill notes too the use of the language of addiction, "there's this great big chord that gets people hooked." An early manual was entitled "A Handbook for Adeline Addicts".

He notes too that "barbershoppers almost never speak of 'singing' a chord, but almost always draw on a discourse of physical work and exertion; thus, they 'hit', 'chop', 'ring', 'crack', and 'swipe....' ...vocal harmony... is interpreted as an embodied musicking. Barbershoppers never lose sight (or sound) of its physicality."

Historical origins

The first uses of the term were associated with African Americans. Henry notes that "The Mills Brothers learned to harmonize in their father's barber shop in Piqua, Ohio. Several other well-known African American gospel quartets were founded in neighborhood barber shops, among them the New Orleans Humming Four, the Southern Stars and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartette."cite web |url= |author=Henry, James Earl |title=The historical roots of barbershop harmony |date=2005-10-26 |publisher=Barbershop Harmony Society |accessdate=2008-02-11] Although the Mills Brothers are primarily known as jazz and pop artists and usually performed with instrumental accompaniment, the affinity of their harmonic style with that of the barbershop quartet is clearly in evidence in their music and most notably, perhaps, in their best-known gospel recording, "Jesus Met the Woman at the Well," performed a cappella. Their father founded a barbershop quartet, the Four Kings of Harmony, and the Mills Brothers produced at least three records in which they sang a cappella and performed traditional barbershop material.

Barbershop harmonies remain in evidence in the a cappella music of the black church. The popular, Christian a cappella group Take 6cite web |url= |title=Take 6 |publisher=Primarily A Cappella |author= |date= |accessdate= ] started in 1980 as The Gentleman's Estate Quartet with the tight, four-part harmony by which barbershop music is known. Early on, the quartet added a fifth harmonic line, but the group's pedigree, like barbershop music, is traceable directly to the black church—and the jazzy renditions of artists like the Mills Brothers, as well.citation |author=Abbott, Lynn |title=Play That Barber Shop Chord: A Case for the African American Origin of Barbershop Harmony |journal=American Music |volume=10 |date=1992 |pages=289–325 |doi=10.2307/3051597] citation |author=Henry, James Earl |title=The Origins of Barbershop Harmony: A Study of Barbershop's Links to Other African American Musics as Evidenced through Recordings and Arrangements of Early Black and White Quartets |format=Ph. D diss. |publisher=Washington University |date=2000]


Barbershop Harmony Society

The revision of a cappella singing was taken up again when a tax lawyer named Owen C. Cash decided that for the art to die out would be a shame. He garnered support from an investment banker called Rupert I. Hall. Both came from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Cash was a true partisan of quartet singing who advertised the fact that he did not want a cappella to fall by the wayside. A meeting was called and at 6.30 pm on Monday April 11, 1938, 26 men gathered on the roof garden of the Tulsa Club in the Alvi Hotel. They eventually burst into four part harmony singing. The police were called and had to ask the participants to "keep it down." The sound of their singing had reached ground level and all traffic stopped to listen, wondering where the harmonic sound was coming from. This incident is spoofed in an episode of the Simpsons.

Cash had struck a chord, albeit unwittingly, and soon, across North America, men responded in their thousands and later in the same year the "Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America" was set up, known by the acronym S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A. at a time when many institutions in the United States were in the habit of using multiple initials to denote their function. More recently, the name was changed to the simpler "Barbershop Harmony Society."

Female Barbershop music and "Beautyshop" quartets

Traditionally, the word "barbershop" has been used to encompass both men's and women's quartets singing in the barbershop style. Harmony, Inc. calls itself "International Organization of Women Barbershop Singers" while Sweet Adelines International calls itself "a worldwide organization of women singers committed to advancing the musical art form of barbershop harmony."

A few women's quartets, particularly in U.S. schools, have used the term "beautyshop quartets" for women's quartets singing in the barbershop style.

Notable female quartets include:
* The Cracker Jills [ [ Cracker Jills (Sweet Adeline quartet)] ] with Renee Craig
* Ambiance [ [ Ambiance (Sweet Adeline quartet)] ]
* The Chordettes, who recorded a number of mainstream popular hits during the 1950s, notably Mr. Sandman

Barbershop groups with both male and female members are known as "mixed barbershop" groups. [ [ Mixed barbershop music] ]


Singing a cappella music in the barbershop style is a hobby enjoyed by men and women worldwide. The hobby is practiced mostly within one of the three main barbershop associations, which have a combined membership in the neighborhood of eighty thousand.

The primary men's organization in the US and Canada is the Barbershop Harmony Society. Women have two organizations in North America, Sweet Adelines International and Harmony Incorporated. "Sweet Adelines, Inc" was founded in 1945 by Edna Mae Anderson of Tulsa, Oklahoma. "Harmony, Incorporated" was formed in 1959 by 5 chapters that split from Sweet Adelines in 1957 over a dispute regarding admission of non-Caucasian members. SPEBSQSA and Sweet Adelines at that time restricted their membership to whites, but both opened membership to all races a few years later. All three organizations comprise choruses and quartets that perform and compete regularly throughout the US and Canada, and Sweet Adelines International also has a portion of its membership outside North America.

Organizations affiliated with the Barbershop Harmony Society and Harmony Incorporated exist in the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Germany, Ireland, South Africa, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and elsewhere. Some national and regional barbershop groups include:

* Sweet Adelines International (SAI) []
* Harmony, Inc. (HI) []
* Barbershop in Germany (BinG) []
* British Association of Barbershop Singers (BABS) []
* Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers (LABBS) []
* Dutch Association of Barbershop Singers (DABS) []
* Ladies Association of Dutch Barbershop Singers (Holland Harmony) []
* Society of Nordic Barbershop Singers (SNOBS) []
* Southern Part of Africa Tonsorial Singers (SPATS)
* New Zealand Association of Barbershop Singers (NZABS) []
* Australian Association of Men's Barbershop Singers (AAMBS) []
* Irish Association of Barbershop Singers (IABS) []

A worldwide association for mixed groups, the Mixed Harmony Barbershop Quartet Association [] , was established in 1995 to reflect the growing popularity of male-female barbershop singing.

Notable artists


A barbershop quartet is an ensemble of four people who sing a cappella in the exacting barbershop music genre.

While the form is accessible to nearly anyone who can carry their part, the best quartets are formed of singers with a very uniform sound, particularly for vowels. With few exceptions, quartets are all-male or all-female in order to better match voices. Often siblings are naturally well-matched, as they grow up using the same accent. In other cases, disciplined practice over time yields consistent use of the same vowels.

In North America most male barbershop quartet singers belong to the Barbershop Harmony Society, while most female barbershop quartet singers are in either Sweet Adelines International or Harmony, Inc. Similar organizations have sprung up in many other countries.

Most barbershop quartet singers also choose to sing in a chorus.

* The Haydn Quartet, an early 1900s quartet also known as the Edison Quartet
* American Quartet
* The Buffalo Bills, 1950 International Quartet Champions, appeared in stage and screen productions of The Music Man, frequently appeared on Arthur Godfrey's radio show
* The Dapper Dans of Disneyland, regularly appearing at Disneyland and Disneyworld, as The Be Sharps in a Simpsons episode, and as the Singing Busts in Disney's 2003 "Haunted Mansion" movie
* The Singing Senators, a quartet of U.S. Senators


A barbershop chorus is a chorus that sings a cappella music in the barbershop style. Most barbershop choruses belong to a larger association of practitioners such as the Barbershop Harmony Society, Sweet Adelines International or Harmony, Inc..

In the Barbershop Harmony Society, a chorus is the main performing aspect of each chapter. Choruses may have as few as 12 or as many as 150 members singing. Choruses normally sing with a director, as distinct from quartets.

Unlike a quartet, a chorus need not have equal numbers singing each voice part. The ideal balance in a chorus is about 40% bass, 30% lead, 20% baritone and 10% tenor singers.


* The Vocal Majority, based in Dallas, TX eleven-time International Chorus Champions
* The Masters of Harmony, six-time International Chorus Champions. Based in Los Angeles County, California.
* The Louisville Thoroughbreds, seven-time International Chorus Champions from Louisville, Kentucky.
* The Alexandria Harmonizers, based in Alexandria, VA. four-time International Chorus Champions.
*Chorus of the Chesapeake, two-time International Champion chorus, based in the Baltimore, MD area.
* The Westminster Chorus, a youth barbershop chorus in California started by young members of the Masters of Harmony are the 2007 International Chorus Champion.


* The Great Western Chorus – seven times British champions and current British Association of Barbershop Singers (BABS) gold medalists; Radio 3 "Choir of the Year" 2006 Finalists; based in the South West of England

* Cambridge Chord Company – twice European champion barbershop chorus and British Association of Barbershop Singers gold medalists; "Choir of the World" International Eisteddfod 2004; based in England

* Vocal Academy – formed in 2001, winners of British Association of Barbershop Singers (BABS) most improved chorus award "The Cambridge Scroll" in 2007; based in Sawtry, Cambridgeshire


* Gem City Chorus, five-time Sweet Adelines International Chorus Champions from Dayton, OH.
* North Metro Chorus, three-time Sweet Adelines International Chorus Champions from Toronto, Ontario.
* The Rich-Tone Chorus, four-time Sweet Adelines International Chorus Champions from Richardson, Texas.
* Melodeers Chorus, four-time Sweet Adelines International Gold Medal chorus from Northbrook, Illinois.
* Surrey Harmony Chorus, five-time Sweet Adelines Region 31 Gold Medal chorus from Coulsdon, United Kingdom.

Typical barbershop songs

Barbershop Harmony Society's Barberpole Cat Songs "Polecats" — songs which all Barbershop Harmony Society members are encouraged to learn as a shared canonic repertoire — all famous, traditional examples of the genre:

* "Down Our Way"
* "Down by the Old Mill Stream"
* "Honey/Li'l Lize Medley"
* "Let Me Call You Sweetheart"
* "My Wild Irish Rose"
* "Shine on Me"
* "The Story of the Rose" ("Heart of My Heart")
* "Sweet Adeline"
* "Sweet and Lovely"
* "Sweet, Sweet Roses of Morn"
* "Wait 'Til the Sun Shines, Nellie"
* "You Tell Me Your Dream (I'll Tell You Mine)"

There are also several other well-known songs in the genre. Some are considered standards, such as "From the First Hello" and "Goodbye, My Coney Island Baby", while others are well-known because notable quartets are associated with them. An example of the latter is "Come Fly with Me", which gained popularity through association with the 2005 international quartet champion, Realtime.

Examples of other songs popular in the barbershop genre are:

* "Alexander's Ragtime Band"
* "Bright Was the Night"
* "Come Fly with Me"
* "Darkness on the Delta"
* "From the First Hello to the Last Goodbye"
* "Goodbye, My Coney Island Baby"
* "Hello Ma Baby"
* "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen"
* "Shine On Harvest Moon"
* "Sweet Georgia Brown"
* "When My Baby Smiles at Me"
* "Yes Sir, That's My Baby"

While these traditional songs still play a part in barbershop today, barbershop music also includes more current titles. Most music can be arranged in the barbershop style, and there are many arrangers within the aforementioned societies with the skills to include the barbershop chord structure in their arrangements. Today's barbershop quartets and choruses sing a variety of music from all eras – show tunes, pop, and even rock music has been arranged for choruses and quartets, making them more attractive to younger singers.

References in popular culture

* "Lida Rose" is a song beloved to barbershoppers from Meredith Willson's musical comedy "The Music Man". A barbershop quartet forms an integral part of the story, and was played by the Buffalo Bills onstage and in the screen adaptation.

* Popular American rock band, Phish, often would display barbershop styles during live shows, with songs such as "Hello! Ma Baby", "Sweet Adeline", and "Amazing Grace".

In television

* In The Simpsons episode Homer's Barbershop Quartet, Homer Simpson, Seymour Skinner, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon and Barney Gumble have their own barbershop quartet.

* On the television series Family Guy, barbershop quartets are sometimes used, and at the same time parodied, in episodes such as Cleveland-Loretta Quagmire and Sibling Rivalry.

* In the popular TV show Scrubs, four of the employees of the hospital form a barbershop quartet which has been called "Ted's Band", "The Worthless Peons", and most recently, "Foghat". The quartet is played by the real-life group The Blanks. [cite web |url= |title=Scrubbing out the high notes |accessdate=2008-05-17 |last=Blais |first=Patrick |date=2004-04-28 |work=The Stoneham Independent |publisher=Woburn Daily Times Inc. ]

* In Mystery Science Theater 3000 series 8, episode 7 "Terror From The Year 5000" a host segment features a Barbershop-style song "When I Held Your Brain In My Arms" spoofing the recurring character Brain Guy's species whose members carry their brains in jars.

* In The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, episode 72 "Sleepover Suite" there is a Barbershop quartet convention at The Tipton. The main characters' mother, Carey, is constantly badgered by a quartet to become their fifth singer for a quintet, but she refuses.

* In Diagnosis Murder episode 126 "Rescue Me," Dick Van Dyke sings with the Mutual Fun barbershop quartet.

* In The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack episode "Shave and a Haircut", Flapjack and his friend Captain K'nuckles are pursued by a barbershop trio who always sang instead of speaking and finished each other's sentences in a rhythmic fashion. Of the many phrases and sentences they sang, the classic phrase "Oh no he didn't!" was executed.

ee also

* A cappella
* Barbershop arranging
* Doo-wop
* List of quartet champions by year
* List of chorus champions by year
* List of BABS quartet champions by year
* List of LABBS quartet champions by year



Further reading


External links

* [ Harmony Hall Museum: The historical section of the BHS website, with information on quartets, choruses, and competitions since the Society's inception.]
* [ Present at the Creation: Barbershop Quartets] from NPR
* [ Barbershop Quartets on 78rpms: How Quartet Harmonizing Became Known as Barbershop]

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